I imagine it must have sucked to be Mike Fazackerley, director of security at Manchester airport on Jan. 7th, when they unveiled their new body scan systems to the general public. He, naturally, had to pose for it, and the scan showing off his underwhelming manhood wound up becoming distributed world-wide as the "stock" body-scan image by Reuters and Associated Press. The attractive female Director of Public Relations gushed about how it had received a "warm reception" from travellers since then in the accompanying video handout. It's instructive, though, that she regrettably chose not to volunteer to be scanned herself; perhaps she felt the Rapiscan would prove closer to one of its two possible meanings.
The speed with which various world governments rolled out body scanners in major airports following the failed tighty-whitey bombings on Christmas Day 2009 was nothing short of remarkable; in Amsterdam, which was where the flight originated, body scanners were rolled out, fully functional, less than 24 hours afterwards. In fact, security staff had already been trained on it, as in many airports elsewhere in the affluent world; Canada, the United States, and the UK quickly followed suit in depriving air travellers the last scrap of dignity which they tenaciously clung to in the face of terrorism. The more paranoid among us would say that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a CIA stooge hired to fail in his attack so that it would give justification for increased security measures. The sad truth though, is that you don't need to weave a massive, intricate conspiracy to do it; you just have to wait long enough before some jihadi with too much piety and too few brains gift-wraps a ready-made excuse to "virtually" strip search every international air traveller.
This naturally raises a few questions. Why does the government want to see me naked in the first place, and why does it bother me? It is even that effective? And even if it were effective, would I care?
A Little Background
If you've fucked up, the government wants to see you naked. This is not a note of mania-induced paranoia, it's really quite simple. Long beard and robes going through the airport? Secondary screening. Suspected of smuggling drugs? Squat and cough. Requirement for getting working visas in some countries? Get those pants off, and let your legs fall apart. The government will, if needed, take any security measure it deems necessary, your quaint protests in the name of human dignity notwithstanding.
Prisons are really the ultimate expression of this proclivity towards nudity. Doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, what religion you are, or whether or not you were violently anally raped two months earlier. You will strip, squat, lift breasts/scrotum (as per gender), and cough upon entry. If for some reason you object to this you will be held down while your clothes are cut off of you, and if there aren't enough COs of the same gender to do it, well, too bad. Suck it up, princess.
So you've just been legally sexually assaulted, and you're feeling down. That's understandable. You confide to the prison's counsellor that you're experiencing low feelings of self-worth coupled with depression, as the strip search brought negative emotions flooding in from the sexual assault you endured as a child. The counselor nods, jots down a few notes, then asks you if you've had any suicidal thoughts recently. You ponder this question.
"Now or ever?" You ask.
Answering even vaguely in the affirmate to the "suicidal" question suddenly gets you put into a top security tier and a one-way ticket into the "Crisis Support Unit", "Psychological Observation", "Mental Health Unit" or any cheerful euphemism the prison wants to use. The truth is that, because you admitted to feeling suicidal due to the invasive actions already taken by the prison, they're going to take it to a new level. You will be strip searched again, and in some units, up to six times a day. Once you arrive at your cell, which will be almost completely barren, you might have the privilege of wearing only a hospital-style gown for security, though frequently you will not receive a shred of clothing whatsoever. The idea is to remove any object which could be used for self-harm, and that can have a pretty wide scope. If you're female, though, you might just be too much of a security risk to receive a tampon, and if you receive a pad, it will be attached to a godawful contraption maunfactured by Ferguson Safety Products, inc. On its website, Ferguson offers a few helpful tips for using this "sanibelt" in its FAQ:
Q12: The sanitary pad doesn't stick very well to the material.
A. True. Can't be helped. Our priority is providing something that can't be made into a weapon. This foam is the only material we've found that fits the bill and sanitary pad adhesives do not adhere strongly to its porous surface. When it’s actually worn, the pad will stay in place well enough for the usual low level of activity of such an inmate. (emphasis mine)
Q13: How long can a sanitary belt be used?
A. It will tear if the wearer plays tennis in it but she can probably play croquet if your safety cell is so equipt. Since it's meant to be too weak to be able to form a cord, it may not hold up very long, but the wearers are typically motivated to keep it intact.
"Typically motivated to keep it intact" - nice little joke at the probably thousands of inmates who want to maintain this last scrap of their dignity without bleeding all over the place, in open view of male COs. America, this is sick. You need to be deeply ashamed of yourselves.
Sometimes, prisons dispense totally with the pretense of stripping people for "therapeutic and safety" reasons, and do it purely for punishment - and this in Washington, one of the more liberal states in the union. Should you be unlucky enough to find yourself in a more conservative, southern state like Mississippi, then not even juvenile inmates are spared this, being thrown naked into concrete cells for as long as 114 days, with nothing more than a hole in the floor for a toilet, for such banal infractions as "not eating their vegetables".
America, like, come on. It's becoming clear that Abu Ghraib did not happen in a vacuum.
And Britain, you're on notice.
But Does It Work?
Well, this is the magic question. By all accounts, this kind of blatant violation of even the most basic human privacy does not significantly reduce contraband levels. This report from a prison in Victoria state, in Australia, states the following:
When the state resumed control of the prison in 2001, there was a massive increase in strip searches so that in a one-year period from 2001 to 2002, 18,889 strip searches were carried out on a daily prison population averaging two hundred. Only one item of contraband was found. In Victoria's minimum security women's prison, some 736 strip searches over two years revealed one item of contraband. A Queensland Freedom of Information request in 2001 revealed that 8,400 strip searches of women prisoners succeeded in finding contraband consisting of 'two cigarettes, earrings, and a sanitary napkin (no blood)".
So we have here a total of 28,025 state-sanctioned sexual assaults leading to five separate seizures of contraband, for a success rate of 0.017%. Amazing. Statistics of this sort are hard to come by for the United States, I'm guessing because a similar paltry-low hit rate would render their blanket-stripping policy (for virtually everyone hauled into a jail or prison) expendable, and would shed some bright light into the dark corner that it's probably done as punishment more than anything. I will grant that foreknowledge of mandatory strip-searching may dissuade some inmates from importing contraband - fine, I begrudgingly accept that. But there has to be a better way than this.
It's telling that in many Western European countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany where nudity is a relatively common and everyday occurence (without the imlplied sexuality as seen in North America), many prisons have adopted body scanners in lieu of strip searches. They grasp that, if the sole point of strip searches is to detect contraband, then it should and could be done at minimal impact on the inmate's dignity, a point lost on most English-speaking countries. It's also telling that naturism-based websites, often European, do brisk business in the United States as porn even though it is nudity devoid of virtually any sexual content. Nudity, in North America, is sexual; everything else said in this writeup has to be read with this fact in mind.
So then, what happens when a female inmate who has a history of sexual assault is placed in a Suicide Watch regime where she is is denied clothing and is forced to, essentially, expose herself against her will to anyone who walks by her cell? This would be it. Spoiler alert: Inmate "JD" still finds a way to commit suicide in the end.
The more hawkish among you might harrumph, with jowls swinging wildly, and reason that "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime". Well, that's fine. The next time you illegally download a movie, get into a car with anything over .08 BAL or underreport earnings to the IRS, I will personally show up at your door and inspect your asshole for contraband. If you refuse, my team of burly henchmen will hold you down while I cut your clothes off with a knife.
Are we getting back to airports now?
Yes. The vast majority of law-abiding public would not have, until now, experienced any of the aforementioned procedures, because at least they were predicated on a "negative criteria" - meaning, one has to at least be suspected of having committed a crime before having their dignity brutally assaulted. But the inclusion of body scanners, among them the aptly-named Rapiscan, presents a new and troubling perspective shift in the security mindset; namely, that loss of dignity should be a prerequisite to be afforded the privilege of flying, rather than a consequence of having squandered that privilege. Forgive me for conjuring adolescent comparisons to 1984, but this truly is a guilty-until-proven-innocent situation.
Full-on strip searches for every international air traveller would be unpalatable and unacceptable, and everyone knows that. For now, at least. It's important to remember that the erosion of dignity in prisons happened slowly, too, over the course of several decades (solitary confinement, for example, was actually declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the 1970's - along with the death penalty), but a slow chipping away of the basic assumptions of prison conditions, combined with a newly resurgent, vindictive conservative ethos, made "The Hole" a renowned and strikingly common feature of prison experience, eventually institutionally codified as a "Supermax" - style prison. This, however, happened over the course of several decades, and given the current hysteria over aeronautically-based terrorism - combined with the absolute monopoly airplanes hold over international travel - there is simply no guarantee that a similar, total erosion of rights could happen in this situation too. A terrified passenger base, having grown comfortable with body scanners over several decades, may well slowly acquiesce to one extra layer of security.
I don't fly often, so I haven't been faced with this new security-based abomination yet. But even if I were handed a newsletter saying that body scanners prevented untold thousands of terrorist attacks, I would still hate, and refuse it. Why?
Quite simply, because I exist, and my body is not a commodity.